Michael Keaton might be best remembered as Batman, or Mr. Mom, or Beetlejuice, but he got his start in movies with Night Shift, with ex-Fonzie Henry Winkler. Directed by fellow “Happy Days” refugee Ron Howard and penned by 80’s staples Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. This movie was on HBO approximately every 5 minutes in the 80’s, and I watched it nearly every time. When it popped on Mojo+ HD- your cable source for movies even HBO won’t play anymore– I decided to see if it lived up to my nostalgic adulations.
Risky Business is probably the better-known killer pimp comedy, but Night Shift led the way. In the opening scene, we see two toughs throw a pimp out a window, comically landing in a basketball hoop. One of them is Richard Belzer, a comedian whose biggest role prior to this was in 70’s skit comedy The Groove Tube. At first we’re not sure whether we’re supposed to laugh or not, and then one of the kids playing ball says that shot should count, so we know it’s okay to chuckle at the pimp splattered on the pavement. New York in the early 80’s was still a tough town.
Shortly after we meet Chuck Lumley, a doormat of a morgue technician who’s getting stepped on by his boss, his fiancé, and the city. Back then it was a surprise to see “The Fonz” playing a nebbish, but he handled the role with aplomb, channeling Woody Allen but making the role his own. His boss bullies him into taking the titular graveyard shift, where he gets partnered with Keaton’s Bill “Blaze” Blazejowsky, the hyperactive doofus who has so many wacky ideas he carries a tape recorder to save them all. Great ideas like feeding mayonnaise to tuna fish, so you don’t need to add it to make tuna salad.
He’s a schemer who starts using the hearses to chauffeur people around the city, like Ron’s brother Clint Howard. This movie’s so old that Clint had some hair left on that big melon of his. He’s always a fine addition to a comedy in my book. Another 80’s icon who appears is Shelley Long, as Chuck’s neighbor Belinda- who just happens to be a call girl working out of her apartment, whose pimp was slam dunked in the opening scene. Now, I know the obvious joke is how the hell could Shelley Long make a living as a hooker? But she looked pretty good here, dolled up in sexy gear and acting appropriately perky. We meet her when Chuck goes next door to ask her to turn the music down, and gets roughed up by a huge cowboy in his underwear, a precursor to Times Square’s naked cowboy.
Later, when Belinda needs help getting bailed out, she calls Chuck during Thanksgiving dinner. Being the pushover he is, he goes and his fiancé (well-played by Gina Hecht as a henpecking nightmare) follows with her parents. Once they find out what his friend does for a living, there is considerable strain on the relationship. This gives Blazejowsky one of his signature ideas- why not run call girls out of the morgue? With his gumption and Chuck’s financial wizardry, they could all be rolling in dough. Belinda gets her working girls in for the deal, and soon Blaze is rolling like a pimp in a Stutz Blackhawk luxobarge, and Chuck is getting ulcers worrying whether they’ll get caught. Their success of course raises the suspicions of the two killers from the beginning, so the cops are the least of their worries.
There are some good jokes in the movie, and Keaton had loads of comic energy back then. He plays well off of the Fonz, and Shelley Long plays the role completely straight, and is at least as believable as Jamie Lee Curtis’s whore with a heart of gold from Trading Places, even if she couldn’t fill Jame’s bountiful brassiere with her ass cheeks. Gina Hecht has the thankless role as the frigid, neurotic fiance who disappears halfway through the movie, but she makes the most of it. It’s also the film debut of Kevin Costner, who you can see in the frat party scene. Howard wisely shows us a decent amount of boobs; in a movie about hookers you’d feel cheated otherwise, and this one delivers.
The movie has a great tone, and its vision of New York has a touch of the sentimental- even though we get a tour of 42nd Street pre-Disney era, it feels more like They Might Be Giants than Taxi Driver. That’s expected of a comedy, but it’s a nice touch; it would be easy to make New York too smarmy, and thankfully there are no Typical Jewish Old Ladies, Brooklyn Policeman, Funny Black Homeless Guy or other 80’s urban staples. The rude delivery boys (Vincent Schiavelli), the persistent buskers who stick their saxophone in Chuck’s face, and the killer pimps never seem too cruel, even when they shove a fire hose down Fonzie’s throat.
The film doesn’t glamorize prostitution, either- Shelly Long comes home with a black eye, so this is no Pretty Woman. Howard and the scriptwriters don’t make the violent scenes very funny, but instead juxtapose them with a funny ending, like a bunch of Girl Scouts beating Chuck with their cookie boxes, or having a pimp shoot himself in the foot during a gunfight, in a believable manner- when pulling a gun from an ankle holster. The ending loses steam, but it’s great to see Michael Keaton do his hyper dummy act, which would eventually be crafted into classic performances like Beetlejuice. The movie spends a little too much time showing us how Chuck grows a spine, but this movie holds up well. If you haven’t seen it, you should give it a shot- I miss Funny Guy Michael Keaton, and wish he’d get another chance to do comedy.
Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? It would seem quaint
Quotability Rating: Medium
Cheese Factor: Low
High Points: Michael Keaton’s antics
Low Point: Ending drags
Gratuitous Boobies: 4 distinct pairs to make up for Shelley Long’s AA cups